"It is often the inadequacies of the legal process and the shame projected by perpetrators onto victims which compel us to retell our stories," writes artist and domestic violence advocate Amani Haydar.
By
Amani Haydar

12 Sep 2019 - 12:06 PM  UPDATED 19 Feb 2020 - 11:34 AM

"Will I be able to read a victim impact statement?" I asked my counsellor during one of my first sessions at the Homicide Victims Support Group in Parramatta.

"Yes, but only if you want to," she answered.

My counsellor highlighted that at the core of the experience of victims of violence was a deep and disorienting loss of control. Time warped for me in the two years between mum’s murder and dad’s trial, stretching and accelerating between bouts of depression over what had happened, and anxiety about what would happen next.

Hunched over a running tap, scrubbing gunk from plates and knives, I would rehearse the things I could say in my victim impact statement. I gurgled ideas out loud while showering, made mental notes while driving and drafted fragments in the Notes app on my phone.

I knew that the victim impact statement was an opportunity to reclaim some control but as the trial drew closer, I had resolved that language was not - and could not - be enough. I had read widely, built up my understanding of gender-based violence, the effects of trauma, the nuances of the legal system. Still, there were no words.

It was during that time that I had learned about the sexual assault committed by Brock Turner against Chanel Miller who until last week I knew only as Emily Doe. I was both impressed and saddened when I read Miller’s victim impact statement. I felt that her words – powerful and uncompromising as they were - could not fully capture the effects of Brock Turner’s crime. Her statement hints at this too.

I still don’t have words for that feeling.”

“Again, I do not have words for these feelings.” 

“I have no words.”

Despite her powerful description of the violence that Brock Turner had inflicted, he went on to serve only three months of a six-month sentence.

have no words.

Towards the end of my dad’s trial, I had become cynical about the legal process as a safe space for victims to reclaim their power.

As a lawyer, I had always viewed the legal system as a powerful, albeit limited forum for storytelling. However, towards the end of my dad’s trial, I had become cynical about the legal process as a safe space for victims to reclaim their power. Later, I learned that the Western model of criminal justice was never designed to be about victims.

My own victim impact statement, neither as profound nor as articulate as I would have liked, signals exasperation when I read back over it; ‘Nothing will make up for what you have done. No sentence will undo the permanent damage you have done to our lives’.

Even so, I felt slightly relieved after reading it out. One of my aunts clapped in the public gallery. His Honour was unimpressed by the ruckus but I felt like I had stepped out of the stuffy court room into fresh air. I had launched my own words into the atmosphere and, although this was infinitesimal on the scale of what had happened, it was huge in terms of my personal shift from victimhood to survivorship.

I realised the power of it because of the immediate backlash it elicited from the people who had chosen to support my dad (words that I won’t dignify by quoting them here). I felt suspended between the elation of having finally spoken and fear of what would happen if I ever spoke again. But when I next had the opportunity to speak in a safe place I took it, and again, and again. Fear receded a little each time.

Reading out my victim impact statement was huge in terms of my personal shift from victimhood to survivorship.

Somewhere through that process I discovered the power of storytelling. I learned how to be the narrator rather than the homicide victim, the witness for the prosecution, the eldest daughter of the deceased.

I imagine that Chanel Miller’s decision to let us know her name and put her story into a memoir is driven by the same urge to reclaim the narrative, restore order and return to visibility. For me, and for many of the victim-survivor-advocates I have spoken to, it is often the inadequacies of the legal process and the shame projected by perpetrators onto victims which compels us to retell our stories in new arenas and mediums.

However, there are difficulties that come with self-advocating let alone becoming an advocate for a cause. I had to better understand the sensitivities and nuances around domestic abuse. I spent a lot of time researching, reading, chatting to mentors and identifying safe spaces. I’ve also had to learn my limitations, how to space out speaking engagements and manage triggers through effective self-care. I am conscious that being able to advocate for myself doesn’t necessarily make me the best advocate for others.

When done in safe places, the storytelling process is an effective tool for combating the shame and taboo that victims are often made to feel about their experiences.  Jess Hill, with David Hollier, writes a whole chapter on shame in her book on domestic abuse See What You Made Me Do. They say, ‘when abusing people are confronted with feelings of shame, they take the path of least resistance’; they attempt to avoid or shift the shame to others through their violence. Storytelling cracks the crust of shame imposed on victims and shifts the burden to where it rightfully belongs; spitting and smouldering in the palms of the abuser.

At the core of storytelling is a desire to reconnect with the world and to do so safely. In Trauma and Recovery Dr Judith Herman describes reconnection as the third stage of recovery from trauma. Violence destroys connections. Through storytelling victims and survivors build new relationships, develop a new sense of self, create meaning out of their experiences and “in accomplishing this work, the survivor reclaims her world”.

The best storytelling is that which builds a community and it is, in turn, a communal responsibility to make the space – in court rooms, media, schools, society - safer for stories. That way, victims know that they are welcome and supported to reclaim their narrative and thereby reclaim their world. 

Amani Haydar is a domestic violence advocate and board member at the Bankstown Women's Health Centre. She is a contributing writer to the anthology Arab Australian Other . Her exhibition The Mother Wound is on display at the Fairfield City Museum and GalleryYou can follow Amani on Twitter @amani_haydar_ and Instagram @amanihaydar.

If you or someone you know is impacted by domestic violence or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au In an emergency call 000.

This article is part of SBS Voices emerging Muslim women writers’ series. If you have a pitch, please contact sarah.malik@sbs.com.au.

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